What’s this? Ale for Easter?

Every Anglophilic fan of Miss Marple knows about the church jumble sale phenomenon. To raise funds for the parish a church may collect donated used goods and sell them as a special event. One might ask why this communal yard sale flourished in England. And the answer seems to be that this cultural commonplace came about because of urbanization and industrialization. Cities had larger consumer pools. Industrialization spawned piles of castoff manufactured goods. More importantly, what preceded jumble sales in history and what does it have to do with Easter?

The Church Ale

In early modern (1450-1750) England, it was not unusual for a local congregation to hold a “Church Ale” on Easter Sunday. Preparation for this event took about a week. Proud locals would offer favorite recipes from barley or malt mixed with water, yeast, and spices. Homemade Ale was warm, dark, and thick and spoiled quickly. Ale was an essential accompaniment to the other outdoor social activities and entertainments that made up Easter weekend. It may have been a significant draw to church services! The reformer German Martin Luther (1483-1546) understood the demand for a good drink in the sixteenth century:

When a good beer is available at a certain place, everybody runs there without delay, knowing that the supply will not last long. This commodity is not to be had every day; therefore people get it while it is to be had. If it could be obtained for a long period of time, our appetite would become surfeited, and the beer would not be prized. (Luther, Works, Vol. 23, p. 262).

Church Ales managed to survive the English Reformation. They faded into oblivion with the industrial revolution, when tavern-goers left brewing to specialists who supplied busy city-dwellers. Because we tend to see the Protestant church’s social behavior through the filter of eighteenth-century Pietism, this is surprising. Later in America, through the influence of pietistic Methodists and Baptists, teetotaling became the mark of the Christian.

Church Ales. Could it be that the time has come to bring back this old idea? This is only a pondering. You didn’t hear me suggest it.

Of ale, taxes, and the gospel.

Two final notes. First, a loyal subject of the monarch (who became Supreme Heads of the Church of England) would prefer ale. The hopelessly xenophobic renaissance hobbits considered beer to be a suspicious foreign concoction. The inclusion of (egad!) hops sullied beer’s reputation. They considered hops a “wicked and pernicious weed,” (Unger, Beer, (2004), p. 100) even though their Protestant counterparts in Germany preferred beer because the pope did not tax hops. They could drink their fill without supporting the Roman church! Second: Luther’s quote above is an illustration of the preaching of the gospel. He says that the offer of the gospel of grace is a limited-time offer (like the excellent beer). We should not become complaisant thinking it will always be available to us!

Church Ales. Could it be that the time has come to bring back this old idea? This is only a pondering. You didn’t hear me suggest it.

Mad George and the Avuncular Roman Candle

For phonophobes, July 4 is the light version—thanks to Big Brother—of Bonfire night, with George III as the “guy.”

Fifty years ago Independence Day was observed more in keeping with John Adams’ vision of the day. In small-town Kansas, where I grew up, explosions began a week early and continued unimpeded through the holiday.

Photo by Alejo Storni on Unsplash

Relatives from states where fireworks were prohibited would visit to experience the ear-popping glory of it all. My Florida uncle chased my cousins and me around the house with a live Roman candle in hand, his whooping and laughter mingling with our screams as the fireballs narrowly missed our heads. My mother saved us by issuing a sharp rebuke to the adult who should have known better. We all felt pity for him when with stooped shoulders and head held low he slinked into the house.

He returned with his Roman candles the next year and the year after that until fireworks were banned in our town as well. Too many roof fires and scorched children filled emergency rooms in the land of the free.

I am sure mad old King George would be happy that our fear of risk would finally spoil Adams’ celebration. Let them pick on Guy Fawkes instead. But some of us will light our Roman candles in secret and remember that imminent risk is cheek and jowl with exquisite joy.

How to Recoup Losses from Bad Bets

E. B. “Andy” White (1899-1985), acclaimed writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of such classics as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style (with his former professor, William Strunk) had graduated at the top of his class at Cornell but could not land a job in New York in his field of journalism or anything else. So he bided his time typing out poems, short stories, and letters on his Corona typewriter hoping that he could launch a career in writing.

He finally found a job doing publicity work for the American Legion News Service in 1921 but hated the job. Never one to keep set hours, White felt that the job did not give him time to develop as a writer with his own voice. The final blow to his position came when he discovered that the more experienced writers he wanted to emulate despised public relations workers. Publicity was considered to be a newly invented and overpaid occupation that caused its practitioners to compromise their souls when the company forced them to spout the party line.

Early in 1922, White drew $400 out of savings and bought a Ford Model T roadster. He conspired with his friend, and Cornell dropout, Howard Cushman, to quit their dreary jobs in the city and make a road trip west–across the United States. They did not have nearly enough money to make the trip so they planned to take their Corona typewriters and write stories and travelogues for their daily bread and, failing that, do any odd jobs that were available for the next sack of groceries and tank of gas.

In the early 1920s, the vast network of highways that we associate with modern American culture did not yet exist. In one great stretch of the trip–the 1400 miles from Minneapolis to Spokane that eventually landed them in Seattle–there were no paved roads. They drove across North Dakota prairie land mostly in wheel ruts, somehow called a highway, surrounded by tall grasses that obscured their side view. Even the more “developed” states had concrete roads that were more like one-lane sidewalks. When two automobiles came directly toward one another, one had to yield and pull over to the dirt track that ran parallel to the paved road.

One day White and Cushman drove into Lexington, Kentucky and decided to experience something that undoubtedly had been on their bucket list: to bet on a horse race. They each had $2 to bet. Cushman was more thoughtful than White and studied the steeds carefully and decided to bet on the favorite. White was more intuitive and chose his horse based on his fondness for its name: Auntie Mae. A 12-1 underdog, the laconic and bedraggled Auntie Mae looked completely out of place among the other spirited contestants but miraculously prevailed while Cushman’s horse did not even place. White won the enormous sum of $24.

White learned about the dangers of overweening beginner’s luck the hard way. He and Cushman decided to drive to Louisville and take in the 1922 Kentucky Derby. This time each invested six dollars using White’s fail-safe system. At the end of the day, White had sixty cents left and Cushman lost the entire wad. What to do? White pulled out his Corona typewriter and composed a sonnet memorializing the winning horse, called Morvich, that had broken their hearts. He drove to the office of the Louisville Herald and sold the sonnet to the editor for five dollars. The next morning White and Cushman saw the poem that helped them recoup their losses displayed prominently on the front page.

White wrote to his girlfriend, Alice: “I now claim the distinction of being the only person that ever wrote a sonnet to a race horse and got away with it.”